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RIP, old FAT Village: Fort Lauderdale’s funky arts district prepares for demolition and a new look

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 7/2/2022 Ben Crandell, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Doug McCraw, founder and owner of FAT Village, says the new version of the neighborhood "will have a much bigger impact on this community, from an art perspective.” © Kara Starzyk/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS Doug McCraw, founder and owner of FAT Village, says the new version of the neighborhood "will have a much bigger impact on this community, from an art perspective.”

FAT Village — the funky, freestyle, gritty, graffitied, nooked, crannied, caffeinated, cocktailed, serendipitous best-kept secret of your memories — is dead.

Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s once-remote pocket of art-making and creative commerce in 70-year-old muraled warehouses along Northwest First Avenue, inspiration for the city’s original art walk and spark for a multimillion-dollar explosion of residential construction, restaurants and bars in Flagler Village, is now all but empty.

Josh Miller helped light the fuse on FAT Village in 2010, hosting free barbecues and movie nights in front of C&I Studios, which now has locations in Los Angeles and New York. © Mike Stocker / South Florida/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS Josh Miller helped light the fuse on FAT Village in 2010, hosting free barbecues and movie nights in front of C&I Studios, which now has locations in Los Angeles and New York.

Sometime in August, demolition crews are expected to begin clearing the way for a 5.5-acre, 835,000-square-foot, mixed-use assemblage of residential, retail and office properties on land bordered by the Brightline tracks and Andrews Avenue, between Sistrunk Boulevard and Northwest Fifth Street. Long-abandoned Maguires Hill 16 pub will be among the first buildings to go.

Greg Young outside the new location of Noblemen's Cut & Shave in Fort Lauderdale's Progresso neighborhood. His old building in nearby FAT Village is scheduled to be torn down in August. © Mike Stocker / South Florida/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS Greg Young outside the new location of Noblemen's Cut & Shave in Fort Lauderdale's Progresso neighborhood. His old building in nearby FAT Village is scheduled to be torn down in August.

But from the dust of the old zeitgeist and the bones of those aged warehouses will come new life, a towering reincarnation of FAT Village that will be more lively than before, FAT Village founder and co-owner Doug McCraw said.

“This will still be FAT Village Arts District, and it still will be very focused on art activities and environment,” McCraw said.

The new project, which will retain the FAT Village name, includes two towers, 24 and 25 stories each, that will house just over 500 residential units, along with 80,000 square feet of space devoted to food and beverage, shopping, entertainment, art studios and galleries. It is slated to take 18 to 24 months to complete.

The development is a joint project between McCraw and business partner Lutz Hofbauer; Urban Street Development, the partnership of Fort Lauderdale hospitality veteran Tim Petrillo (YOLO, Boatyard, Casablanca Cafe) and developer Alan Hooper; and global real-estate giant Hines.

The project has been several years in the planning, and for longer than that felt inevitable. From New York’s SoHo and Miami’s Wynwood to Deep Ellum in Dallas and Alberta Arts District in Portland, Ore., creatives have injected life into forgotten neighborhoods, then made way for developers.

Petrillo positioned the project as a metamorphosis.

“We’re going to be a version of what we once were, but just a newer version with more amenities, more things to do and places to visit,” he said. “We definitely don’t want to change so dramatically that it’s not recognized as what it once was. That’s not what it’s going to be.”

And yet, it is a shock to see Northwest First Avenue — once home to gallery openings, music festivals and a bustling thoroughfare during the monthly FAT Village Art Walk — so desolate.

“Where’s the funkiness gonna be?” said Jay Brown, 28, of Pompano Beach, of the new FAT Village. Speaking during a June 25 garage sale held among the warehouses, the visitor continued, with a smile: “We want the funk. Gotta have that funk.”

Going, going, gone

Among the recently closed holdouts, Ingrid Schindall of IS Projects has moved her printmaking studio to Miami. Barber Greg Young has relocated Noblemen’s Cut & Shave — where he trimmed Miami Dolphins stars including Dan Marino, Ryan Tannehill and Tua Tagovailoa — across the tracks to the up-and-coming Progresso neighborhood.

Sixth Star Entertainment, the massive warehouse maze of scenic props, costumes, lights and event decor that was one the most popular hideouts during FAT Village Art Walk, stands bare under a beautiful grid of Dade County pine trusses. The event-planning company is moving to a warehouse near Cypress Creek Station.

The new development will replace what resembled old concrete boxes with new, gleaming state-of-the-art structures — two of the office buildings will be constructed with timber using Hines’ new proprietary T3 process — but the refrain among those who have spent years on the block is about loss.

Jerron Pitts, longtime manager at Sixth Star Entertainment, said he won’t miss the company’s physical home of the past 20 years — the old structure had no air conditioning. But he will miss the camaraderie (”It was fun. Everybody was family.“) and Art Walk, which he said generated new business for the company.

“It brings people downtown, the cool people. I don’t believe it will continue anywhere else. It will just be something we lost,” Pitts said, while helping to load a truck outside Sixth Star recently. “Downtown Fort Lauderdale needs to be built up, don’t get me wrong. We do need that, but then we do need this.”

Young is happy where he is now — the new Noblemen’s space at 805 NE Second Ave. is bigger and brighter, with better parking. But he misses the industrial vibe of the FAT Village location and Art Walk, which he said taught locals to be more adventurous when they go out, a quality he calls “in the cut.”

“They’re more willing to turn down a side street, in the cut, to get what they want instead of looking into a shopping center. They’re more willing to look in a warehouse,” Young said, describing FAT Village as “in the cut.”

“I have mixed feelings. I understand they want to bring more value to the community, which I think is awesome,” Young said. “But at the same time, I like the character that was there. When you do too much [development], you’re taking away all the character that was in the community.”

Turn out the lights

Ellen Freed, of Fort Lauderdale, recalls her first Art Walk with her kids shortly after moving to the city five years ago.

“We were driving by, by the tracks, and saw the lights and the people. We had no idea. I remember the secret bar in the back with all the books … and I still have a cool pair of earrings I got. It was a great way to meet Fort Lauderdale,” Freed said.

The FAT Village bar with all the books is Next Door, reached through an unmarked hallway inside C&I Studios, a stylish hive of activity on the block for more than a decade.

If FAT Village has a soul, it is at C&I Studios, which founder and CEO Joshua Miller said he must vacate by July 31. He’ll likely be the last creative left on the street to turn out the lights on this era of FAT Village.

When Miller moved his multimedia marketing and advertising agency from a small warehouse near Commercial Boulevard to a 4,000-square-foot space at 541 NW First Ave. in 2010, he found “a terrible neighborhood,” he said, with cars being broken into regularly. He said trailblazers Jim Hammond of the Puppet Network, now organizer of the city’s wildly popular Day of the Dead festival, and Chuck Loose of Iron Forge Press were trying to create a community, but their nascent FAT Village Art Walks drew only a few dozen people each month.

Miller wanted to inspire activity in the neighborhood more often, opening the garage door at C&I Studios to host free barbecues, movie nights and art exhibits, and his For the Love Music Festival series booked local, regional and nationally touring acts.

Next Door opened inside C&I in 2013 and became an instantly popular spot for coffee beginning at 7 a.m. daily and for cocktails up to midnight Thursday through Saturday.

“I don’t want to say I had a vision of what it could be, but when I saw the street and I saw the space … I knew that, oh, this place is gonna be home. But not necessarily home to me, but home to so many people. I knew that instantly,” Miller said.

As the neighborhood flourished, so did C&I Studios, which shoots marketing spots for Fortune 500 companies, short films and music videos, and has offices in New York and Los Angeles.

Miller understands the “real-estate play” happening in FAT Village, but he is not happy to be leaving, and not happy about how it was handled.

The developers told Miller three years ago that he and several other tenants would be retained, he said. An earlier generation of plans for the development called for the new FAT Village to incorporate some of the old warehouses, including the C&I Studios space.

Miller became a defender of the project to other creatives on the block, and the developers listed him among its supporters, asking him to speak to the City Commission and neighborhood civic associations in favor of it, he said.

But in January, Miller got word that the plans had changed: The entire property would be bulldozed and he had to leave by July 31.

“I got strung along for three years like a jackass, when I could have been making a plan, when all these businesses could have been making a plan,” he said.

C&I Studios has been offered a space inside the new FAT Village, but Miller isn’t sure what he’ll do. He has signed a lease on a space near Sistrunk Boulevard.

Miller believes there is a way for residential development to co-exist with the authentic art scene that inspired it — beyond putting a mural on a wall. He cites Wynwood, which has expanded and gotten more expensive, but “kept the soul” intact.

“While Wynwood evolved, Fort Lauderdale and FAT Village sold out. It won’t be the same feel here. This is like Old Navy moving in and Ann Taylor,” Miller said. “This is gonna be Las Olas No. 2.”

FAT Village’s new life

FAT Village’s creators, McCraw and Hofbauer, began buying up old warehouses between 1998 and 1999, about five years before visionary developer Tony Goldman purchased his first building in Wynwood.

Long a collector of paintings, photography, sculptures and folk art, McCraw says he will put his passion for creative culture and artistic sustainability up against anyone’s — estimating that he and Hofbauer have invested more than $3.5 million into FAT Village in the past 11 years.

McCraw describes the changes coming to FAT Village as an innovative new phase in the life of the neighborhood.

“Art is not going away. FAT Village is not going away. Art Walk is not going away,” he said. “While we are under construction, we will not be having them, but when we reopen, we will have a much bigger impact on this community, from an art perspective.”

McCraw said a lot of attention has been paid to designing the new phase of FAT Village as an environment that will be inspiring to creatives, including artist studios, exhibit space and permanent installations. He said Hines is “very, very sensitive” to maintaining the authenticity of the neighborhood.

McCraw understands the nostalgia people feel for the old warehouses — he wanted to save them, too. But the design changed when developers were told they had to raise the entire 5.5-acre site by 18 inches to bring it up to code to prevent flooding, he said, noting that the wood trusses from the old warehouses would be repurposed as part of the new project.

Petrillo acknowledged that the project includes space for C&I Studios and several other tenants in the new FAT Village. Those offers remain on the table, he said.

“I love Josh, but it’s hard for him to understand that what exists now is just not going to exist,” Petrillo said. “We want him to stay with us in the neighborhood. It would be unfortunate if he decided to leave FAT Village. Obviously he’s been instrumental in creating that vibe and creating that neighborhood, and we respect that and we want him to stay.”

The residential housing in the new FAT Village will include some units aimed at working artists, McCraw said.

“They will be designed in such a way that they will rent at a discount, a rent that is more affordable for, let’s say, working millennials, young people,” he said. “We have a waiting list for artists that we are taking now.”

McCraw said he is partnering with the Related Group on a separate project across the street, a 12- to 14-story building on a vacant lot at the northeastern corner of Andrews Avenue and Sistrunk Boulevard, that would include “affordable and workforce housing.”

The warehouses on the eastern side of Northwest First Avenue that are home to C&I Studios and McCraw’s own office, a few doors down, will probably not be demolished until year’s end, he said.

Marc Falsetto of Handcrafted Hospitality, which owns Henry’s Sandwich Station, next door to C&I Studios, said the eatery will be part of the new FAT Village project and that he intends to open a second restaurant, concept TBD, as well.

Like the others, the Henry’s building will be torn down. It will be open through July 24, Falsetto said, but Henry’s will be available for online orders at until the new restaurant opens.

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at Follow IG: @BenCrandell and TW: @BenCrandell.

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